A Lady and Her Town

Mom and Dad on their wedding day with her mother, Anna Borrelle. In the background is the General Worth Hotel, which was just a few steps from where my mother grew up. 

Mom and Dad on their wedding day with her mother, Anna Borrelle. In the background is the General Worth Hotel, which was just a few steps from where my mother grew up. 

On the day she died ten years ago today, my mother did one of the best things a mother can do for a child: she laughed at my jokes.

We were in her room at Columbia Memorial Hospital in Hudson, NY, in the final hours of her determined struggle to hang on to earthly life. She was sitting up in bed, surrounded by flowers from friends and family. In the room was her lifelong best friend -- her sister really -- Fran Brady. Fran and Mom had shared a room in the same hospital 47 years earlier when Fran's daughter, Sue, and I were born.

On that final day of her life, I wore a striped blue and yellow oxford shirt that she hated and hoped it would make her laugh. 

"Hey Mom, I wore your favorite shirt," I said. "Oh, that's really nice, thank you for wearing it," she said sarcastically. Fran joined in the laughter and it seemed like any of the thousands of times when these two great women were together. My Mom was always animated by Fran's presence and today was no different. They laughed again when I joked about how much Mom loved the overabundant and fragrant flower arrangements (she didn't).

Fran Brady, left, and my mother. 

Fran Brady, left, and my mother. 

Fran said her final goodbye to the woman she loved with smiles that hid deep sorrow. That had been their way for decades; it was a friendship cemented by laughter. My mother found rest a few hours later, quietly giving in to the cancer that had tried futilely to define her final years. Nothing, not four energetic kids, chemotherapy, or now, death, could diminish the quiet resolve and fire of Rachel Borrelle Sheffer, a diminutive daughter of Italian immigrants.

She grew up in an apartment over her father's pool hall on lower Warren Street, the city's main drag. It was a neighborhood of close-knit Italian families who worked hard to prove themselves as Americans, who did big things like build a church, and who cared deeply for each other. Mom was the community's favorite daughter, a smart, curly-haired beauty with an electric smile.

She was a little sister to two big brothers and popular with her classmates. She married a star athlete from Hudson High, our father, Kenneth "Red" Sheffer, and dedicated her life to raising the four of us -- Valerie, Ken, Paula and myself -- in her hometown. 

Hudson is a small city, but to Mom, life there and in the surrounding area was the American Dream. From the Elks Lodge to Fatso's picnic grove to Lake Taghkanic to Kinderhook Lake, it provided everything she needed, including a good job for her husband. In the "Madmen" era of serious fun, she had plenty. Every time the phone rang, chances are it was a friend calling to make plans or to relive the last party. If it was Fran, it was also a way for both to clear their heads and complete their days.

Don't get me wrong, my mother was a hard worker, taking care of everyone around her. She was an amazing cook and was very house proud. She was tough. She didn't say much when we fell short of her expectations; she just had to look at you (including my father) and you knew what you needed to do. She was direct: "Thinking about joining the Army, Gary? No. You're going to college." And that was that.

When we were young, she loved sitting on her father's front stoop with us kids saying "hi" to friends who passed by. This was even more fun for her on days of big parades in Hudson. When we moved to a suburban part of the city, she and my father sat on the front porch of their house in the evening, enjoying neighbors who stopped by for a chat and occasionally a cocktail. 

In front of her father's store.

In front of her father's store.

A few weeks before she passed away, my mother was in the hospital and desperately wanted to go home. She let the staff know it. Usually polite and charming, Mom was frustrated that she was losing her fight and muddled by her medication. We got a late-night call from a nurse who had done her best to calm my mother but needed help from a family member. I arrived at the hospital about midnight. As I sat in the chair next to her bed, nothing calmed her until I started asking her questions about Hudson and its people.

"When did the Concras open The Paramount?" I asked about the bar and grill that was two doors from her father's pool hall. I inquired about other things in the neighborhood --  her life-long friends and next-door neighbors Helen and Rose Roberts, the General Worth Hotel where she had her wedding reception, and Mt. Carmel Church. Answering these questions soothed her.  We talked until dawn. She finally slept.

It may seem strange but that difficult night is the memory of Mom I hold dearest. Those hours in a dark hospital room say everything about a life that was simple but so meaningful. She felt lucky to have lived her life in Hudson among the people who would soon mourn her. The cashiers at the local grocery store turned out for her funeral. So did the people who worked with her at election polls for many years. So did the people still around from the old neighborhood. 

She would never say it but Mom was quietly proud that nearly every minute of her 72 years was spent in service of her family, friends and community. And she had a great time through it all, including laughing at her son's bad jokes. 

Culture comes first for reputation strategy

It has been an amazing few weeks of analysis and dissection of United Airlines’  arms-first "deplaning" of a passenger. My aim here is not to pile on United, a good company that made a mistake. I’d rather focus on how this case illuminates the changing role of communications professionals. 

As always when one of these things happens, people who know what I do for a living say to me, "Boy, does United have a PR problem." It does, but what United really has is a culture problem that that led to a PR crisis.

United has admirable and well-articulated shared values. One is "We Fly Right…We earn trust by doing things the right way..." Another is "We Fly Friendly," and a third states that United respects every voice and makes decisions with empathy.

However, these values went out the window on the flight in question and more importantly, when United adopted the policy to remove passengers from overbooked flights. No business should treat the people who pay the bills this way. Any organizational culture that allows it is broken, any decision-making process that supports it is flawed, and any leader who sanctions it is misguided. 

This is why organizational culture must be at the center of every leaders' agenda and must be the foundation of every enterprise's reputation risk strategy. A good company asks itself "who are we, why do we exist, what do we value and how do we live our values in every action, every day." This cultural examination needs to be led by the CEO, with Human Resources, Communications and others as full partners.

This is where communicators can step forward. It is increasingly communicators' role to be the dissenting voice in the room when a policy is being considered that may be contrary to an organization's stated values. If it is, they should advocate for a different course of action.

Communicators have one of the broadest views of anyone in a company and can help define and contextualize values as well as express and communicate them. If your purpose, mission and values are clearly understood by people in the company, there is a greater chance they will inform every decision and action, including how you respond when things go wrong.

This era of instant "blame and shame" heightens the need for a strong culture. Crisis experts appear in the media just hours after an incident, looking back with perfect clarity to dissect every word uttered by a CEO. This can be helpful. But having been inside a few crises and performed imperfectly during them, I know how hard it is. Facts can be limited or contradictory, there are competing voices in the decision room, time is short, and people are overworked. Your mind doesn't work as clearly in a crisis as it does during normal times.

In addition, research shows that companies and leaders are increasingly judged by how they react in tough times. The consequences can be dire for underperforming as the public face of an organization during a crisis.

United has admitted that it responded insensitively when video of the passenger removal first went viral. It defended its actions in clinical corporate language. The word "re-accommodate" will never be the same. United CEO Oscar Munoz, who appears to be a very competent leader, recovered nicely a few days after the incident, but that was too late for United's sinking reputation and market value. The company has since said that it will no longer remove passengers already seated on flights and that it is conducting a comprehensive review of relevant policies. 

Yes, United has a "PR problem." But like just about every major PR crisis of the past decade, it had its roots in an action that failed to match the company's words and aspirations.

That's why it is important to always be led by values that are aligned with broadly held social values, to build a culture that knows and is comfortable with itself, and that can act with confidence and purpose even in the worst of times. This is the primary job of today's CEOs, with the communicator at her or his side. 

Nevertheless, he persisted

The surface of the Brunswick pool was made of three pieces of inch-thick slate that were so heavy that several men strained to carry them down the steps of our basement. The wheels of the pickup truck that delivered the slate to our house sank into the muddy ground in our backyard.

Frank Borrelle in his pool hall on Warren Street in Hudson, New York. 

Frank Borrelle in his pool hall on Warren Street in Hudson, New York. 

The men, including my father, were too exhausted from the move to put the table together so they left the slate stacked on the floor near the wooden frame of the table. 

Several days later, I came home from school and the eight-foot-long table was assembled, an expanse of green felt expertly stretched over the slate, ready for play. To this day, my family still doesn't know how the slate was hoisted onto the frame. The only person working on the table that day was my grandfather, Frank Borrelle, who was in his seventies and stood about five-and-a-half feet tall. However it happened -- through some magic leverage trick or the help of a few hired hands -- the "mystery of the pool table " became a legend in our family and a symbol of the way my grandfather overcame challenges others walked away from.

Now, my grandfather knew pool tables. Our table came from his pool hall, Ritz Billiards, a three-table emporium he ran for nearly 40 years on lower Warren Street in Hudson, N.Y.

The son of an Italian farmer, he twice emigrated to America during his childhood, staying for good on the second trip. His family lived in a house near a quarry in Hudson and "picked rocks" for 10 cents a day, as he told me. After several jobs in and near Hudson, including owning a luncheonette on Warren Street,  Frank opened his pool hall and ice cream parlor at 223 Warren Street in about 1925 (he added a soda fountain in 1938). He and his wife, Anna, and eventually three children lived in the apartment upstairs.

The pool hall in its heyday. The woman on the right is my mother, Rachel Borrelle Sheffer. 

The pool hall in its heyday. The woman on the right is my mother, Rachel Borrelle Sheffer. 

Frank Borrelle was tough but well-liked. The pool hall became a favorite hangout for Hudson boys in the 1930s and 40s. Its regulars were like a close-knit family, according to his daughter and my mother, Rachel. When these young men left Hudson to serve in World War II, my grandfather saw them off at the train station and took home movies of their departures. When home on leave, the men stopped to see Frank and posed in their uniforms for photos, which he hung on the wall of the poolroom. 

The pool hall was also the start of a real family, mine. My great-grandfather on my father's side, William Sheffer, was one of Frank's best friends and spent every night in the poolroom for many years. If William didn't show up, Frank would go to his house and check on him. William Sheffer's grandson, Ken, would marry my mother. Their first date was in a restaurant next to the pool hall, Paramount Grill. 

World champion Willie Mosconi takes a shot in my grandfather's pool hall as Pete Leggieri of Hudson looking on. More than 100 people watched in 1954 as Mosconi beat Leggieri in a "hard, well-played game" according to the local newspaper.

World champion Willie Mosconi takes a shot in my grandfather's pool hall as Pete Leggieri of Hudson looking on. More than 100 people watched in 1954 as Mosconi beat Leggieri in a "hard, well-played game" according to the local newspaper.

The pool hall drew great players from around the world, including the best ever, Willie Mosconi. Wagers of all kinds were common, and the billiards games were surrounded by other gambling opportunities including a card game in the basement.

My grandfather was still skilled with a pool cue in his 70s and would show us amazing trick shots on the table in our basement, including shooting a half-dollar standing on edge between two blocks of cue chalk at the far end of the table. A life-long tinkerer, he spent much of his retirement making things -- wooden pencil boxes, converting wide-mouth beer bottles into candle holders -- and would stop anywhere and everywhere to harvest dandelions for salads, even other peoples' property. 

In earlier days...the woman beneath the "pocket billiards" sign is my grandmother, Anna Borrelle.

In earlier days...the woman beneath the "pocket billiards" sign is my grandmother, Anna Borrelle.

Stricken by emphysema late in life, Frank spent many hours watching game shows and Lawrence Welk on television. He built a home-made remote-control so he wouldn't have to watch the "goddamn commercials." On Saturday nights when we visited his home, he would audiotape the Welk show and commanded us to be quiet during the hour -- a command my grandmother frequently ignored.

Americans admire the courage and entrepreneurship of their immigrant ancestors. The lesson I take from my grandfather's life is persistence. Without the benefit of speaking the language when he arrived, without money or a mother, and facing discrimination, he would not give up.

There is a story in our family that Frank's wife and my grandmother, Anna, hit a garbage truck with her car when taking her driving test. Sensing he might need to supplement my grandmother's questionable driving skills, Frank threw a carton of cigarettes to the inspector when the road test was over. Anna had her license.

Frank Borrelle got things done, somehow, someway, even magically moving slate so his grandchildren could join him in a game of pool.


POTUS tweets: Nothing to 'frict' here

Updated March 19, 2017

Many experts and counselors have weighed in on how American companies and CEOs should handle the threat of a presidential tweet about jobs, investments, trade -- let's be honest, the list of potential tweet topics is endless.

This question has been much discussed in board rooms and by CEOs and chief communications officers, as it should. After all, this is the first time we've had a president that is the "activist in chief."

Various response strategies have been employed with varying degrees of success, reminding us that much of what we do as communicators is situational, requiring quick and informed judgments, and is more "art" than science. But in reviewing the communications of tweet targets to date, it seems one approach works better than others. 

The best way to anchor and enhance reputation and protect your license to operate in any country is to align your values with social needs and act upon them every day. In other words, companies exist to add value to peoples' lives inside and outside their office and factory walls and should be judged on whether they do or not. 

For communications professionals this means helping executives define and understand these values so it's easier for those in the organization to act on them. Externally, it means helping everyone, including presidents, understand who you are and how you behave -- an authentic purpose-driven "narrative" in communicator speak. 

The companies that have responded well did so with a sense of confidence and ease, in statements free of corporate language. When you know who you are, why you exist and are comfortable with it, these responses become much easier. An edgy "correct the record" attitude (which I have employed many times) seems counterproductive in this political environment -- although explaining the facts is a must. 

On the other hand, the "placate the president" approach doesn't seem to work as well. Don't get me wrong, American CEOs should consider their Washington and local political relationships when making decisions, particularly about their jobs. Elected officials can and will wreak havoc with your reputation if they feel you are betraying workers and constituents. Increasingly, Americans expect companies to put people ahead of money when making workforce decisions.

But the fear of a presidential criticism should never dominate CEO decision-making. Business leaders must make complex investment decisions based on things such as product demand, workforce capability, tax policy, regulation, and operating costs.

Plus, CEOs serve diverse groups of people -- employees, customers, investors, partners, communities, and "civil society," a fancy term that means people outside of government and business who work for the common good. CEOs' sense of nationalism exists and strongly in many cases, but it necessarily falls down the list of priorities when making complex decisions that could affect many stakeholders and determine whether their businesses survive. 

A quick aside for communicators whose CEOs have been asked to work on White House advisory councils. With the U.S. jobless rate at about 9 percent in 2011, GE CEO Jeff Immelt was asked by President Obama to lead a group of CEOs to suggest job-creating policies. Jeff weighed the request carefully, after all, he has a big company to run and with the country divided politically, he knew it would make GE a target for partisan attacks. When Jeff asked my advice, I told him "There's no good 'no' answer. When the presidents asks for help, you say 'yes.'"

Jeff already knew this before I said a word. Plus, GE had a long legacy of helping presidents going back and serving the country is consistent with Jeff's and GE's values. Jeff led a vigorous process and the council produced many suggestions that were implemented. The reputation challenges came as expected from both ends of the political spectrum but most employees viewed Jeff's role favorably because he explained his decision in real time and in real terms.

Back to tweets. A friend of mine and I were discussing recently how to best stay the president's Twitter fingers and he said that a Trump tweet "is a missile looking for friction." His advice to clients: "don't give it anything to 'frict' on." That's a very smart way of saying your best missile defense is running your business the right way, being confident in who your are, and not doing stupid things to put yourself in the crosshairs.

I also like the advice of PR pro Lucas van Praag, who writes in PRWeek how to prepare for and respond when presidents attack, emphasizing the need to have a plan ahead of time, to monitor the Twittersphere vigilantly, and, of course, to act with speed. Lucas concludes:

"Be honest and straightforward. If you are at fault, apologize and do something about it. If you are targeted for something you didn’t do, present the facts in a compelling way. Finally, never lie. Politicians may have the dubious luxury of living in an 'alternative fact' world, but company executives do not."

Sage advice for this age of uncertainty -- or anytime.

Opinions expressed here are my own.




Tales of glory from an unlikely source, my father

My dad was not a storyteller. In fact, he didn't tell us much about his childhood, his work, his time in the military, his thoughts on politics, culture, or for that matter, his four children. He lived in the moment without reflection or reverie. 

"Trow" was 13-13 in his major league career, including 7-5 in the Braves' 1957 world championship season. He was later traded to Kansas City.

"Trow" was 13-13 in his major league career, including 7-5 in the Braves' 1957 world championship season. He was later traded to Kansas City.

That's why I was shocked when in my forties, he handed me a handwritten note chock full of stories about his high school buddy, Bob Trowbridge, who is maybe the greatest athlete to come out of our hometown, Hudson, N.Y. A few days earlier I had asked my father about Bob, who pitched brilliantly for Hudson High and became a major leaguer, most prominently with the championship Milwaukee Braves teams of the late 1950s. 

My father played with Bob in high school and was pretty good in his own right. But my only memory of Dad as an athlete was watching him play softball in his thirties and forties for the Hudson Elks Lodge. He was a feared hitter and I remember him slugging balls onto the distant earthen bank in right field at Charles Williams Field. When he did, he was lucky to get to first base because of his bad knees. He'd hit the ball a mile and then high step like a Lippizaner Stallion to first base, pumping his knees up to his waist as he tried futilely to will speed out of his faulty legs.

After getting Dad's note, I found his high school scrap book, which he had never shown me. The newspaper clippings filled out the story of Dad and Trow, as dad called Bob. My dad was a center fielder and a decent hitter but his love was football, which caused the bad knees, After high school, they both went to a baseball "school" put on by the Boston Braves. Trow was later signed to a contract by the Braves but my dad's time with the Braves was short-lived.

During a visit to my parents a few weeks after I got his note, I asked my dad what happened to his tryout with the Braves. The knees made him too slow, he said, plus a minor league curveball was diabolical compared to the ones he'd seen in high school. This got him telling "glory days" stories about Trow. It was a rare moment for me. 

Dad, who everyone called "Red," said there wasn't a sport or game that Trow couldn't master. For example, Bob challenged and beat a talented local tennis player in a match despite having never picked up a racquet previously. Trow was a great dart player, often winning enough to pay for food and beer for his friends on a Friday night (Dad and Trow shared an admiration for beer. "He could punish it," Dad wrote.) Trow was also a skilled bowler; his entry in the biographical book, "The Ballplayers," says he was known as the best bowler in the major leagues. 

Then Dad told me the story of his own football exploits including a high school game when he had five interceptions -- five! In the Air Force and Army, he spent four years playing football for his military bases. In fact, he may be the only person ever traded from one branch of service to another to play football -- an Army officer spotted him in an Air Force game and arranged for him to play for his Army base. Trow spent three years in the Air Force pitching for the Ellis Air Force Base team near Las Vegas. 

Dad kept talking and switched to a story about Trow's misfortune in the 1957 World Series against the mighty Yankees. Trow pitched very well for the Braves that year and was brought in as a relief pitcher in Game 3 with the Yankees leading 7-3. He was wild but got two outs before the bottom fell out. Dad said that Trow should have had the third out on a clear check swing strike by Jerry Coleman. When the pitch was called ball four, Trow slammed the rosin bag to the ground. After that, he came undone, giving up five runs including a home run to Yankee shortstop Tony Kubek.

In his written note to me, Dad said the only game Trow lost in high school was because his regular catcher ate six hot dogs before the game and became too ill to play. The backup couldn't handle Trow's velocity and Hudson lost the championship game. What a story! From my father!

Hudson High Bluehawks circa 1948. In back row, third from left is Red Sheffer, and third from right is Bob Trowbridge.

Hudson High Bluehawks circa 1948. In back row, third from left is Red Sheffer, and third from right is Bob Trowbridge.

What unlocked these treasures and why did he decide to tell me about them after years of keeping them locked up? I don't know but I know it never happened again. 

Perhaps my dad was just telling me about a friend and someone he shared local headlines with many years ago. Not many high school ballplayers get to see their friend pitch in the World Series and, in that sense, maybe he was telling me about his hero.

Today, hometown friends usually scatter around the world after graduation. My dad's didn't, even the one major leaguer and World Series champion. Dad spent his whole life with Lee, Bobby, Brenz, Pete, Eddie, Trow and others. They lived their whole lives in Hudson and enjoyed their beer, sports and stories. I will always remember the night my Dad let me into their circle.   

A note to Trump's new communications director

This is a note to Mike Dubke, the new White House chief communications strategist, which lately seems like an oxymoron.

Mike, you have a tough job but you appear to be a pro (if Brian Jones says so, I believe him). I have never worked in the White House but I have led a global communications team for one of the world's most important companies and worked as a press aide in state government. So please take this advice for what it is worth.

You have to try to change the way the White House is telling its story. It is not good. The president's peppery press conference yesterday might have made him feel good, but it was actually demeaning to him as a person, to the presidency and to America.

Before you stop reading, I want to assure you this note is not about the president's policies; it is about how you can use your influence and expertise to help the president and the country succeed. It starts with remembering that you work for the president but you serve your fellow citizens. I hope you and your team reflect on this privilege every day.

I'll also admit I am not a supporter of the president but I am rooting for you and him because I am an American. I am the  grandson of Italian immigrants, the son of a veteran, and the father of four smart young adults who are frightened by the spectacle of the last month. I hope you will view my advice in that perspective.

So here are a few quick thoughts as you embark on this amazing and challenging job.

If you want more people to support the president's policies, you have to restore civility and respect to his communications. Stop the name calling. "Liar," "dishonest," "loser," "clown" are the words of an insecure and weak person, not a strong one. Stop the breeding of suspicions of people and institutions, the degrading of those who disagree, and the appeals to base instincts.

Please push the president to speak to all Americans, not just those who voted for him. He has not tried this yet. This starts with listening, even to those who disagree with you. Communications is just noise without listening (as my friend Russell Wilkerson once told me). 

Tell the country in simple but specific terms what the president stands for without the dark apocalyptic language. Ditch those campaign platitudes. Stop looking back. If you show people where you are going, more are likely to follow. 

Try to establish a sense of calm confidence in the administration. Today it looks desperate and frantic. Be a sea of calm amidst the storm and others may mimic your chill.

Muzzle sycophantic spokespeople who bully their way through interviews with anger and lies or who proclaim that "the president is brilliant." Any administration is going to have a set of talking points, but if you are constantly bulldozing, the only thing you will find is that you've dug yourself into a big hole (as my friend Jeff DeMarrais once told me). 

Tell the truth.

Keep Stephen Miller off TV.

For you and your team, spend your "off podium" time building relationships with the news media and your colleagues in government. Your credibility is based on respect and trust. The absence of it creates conflict, frustration, and irrational and emotional responses that are the enemy of progress.

Hire communications pros and put them in the big executive agencies -- Defense, State, Treasury. You will need steady hands there.

Try to answer questions directly. You'd be amazed at how liberating and effective it can be. 

Admit mistakes. We all screw up, particularly in a new job.  

Turn the president's tweet storms into celebratory or aspirational communications. Have the president recognize an American who has done something extraordinary or thank a public servant whose work is exceptional. Use your pulpit power positively. 

Stop your new boss from constantly attacking the news media. Hold reporters to account but do not demonize them. More practically, the president will not win his fight with the media because our Constitution ensures that the free press will outlast any person or president. Learn the hard lessons of Richard Nixon and Spiro Agnew. 

Be bold while rejecting extremism. They are two different things. It has been my experience in business and government that the people with the most extreme views are usually wrong.

I am not naive about how politics works. Every decision is not logical or rational. You will win some fights and you will lose others. But I am confident that if you consistently advocate for truth, civility, clarity, and what is right, you will win more than you lose -- and so will the president.

Mike, congratulations and best of luck.






Help Us, Civic Man (and Woman)

I want to tell you the story of my Grandpa Sheffer, who rose from an inauspicious beginning to become someone our country desperately needs today: "Civic Man."

Civic Men and Women are the amateur politicians and volunteers who set our property tax rates, fix and maintain our roads and bridges, put out fires, run our schools, pick up our trash, plow our streets, and try to grow businesses and jobs in our communities. They do it for little or no pay in and around their "day jobs." 

They do more to affect your life than professional politicians. 

Elmer Richmond Sheffer was one of them. He was born at home on South Sixth Street in Hudson, N.Y., in 1906. He weighed 1 1/2 pounds at birth. It was a difficult delivery for his mother and afterward, his Aunt Minerva wrapped Elmer in a soft blanket, put him in a cigar box and placed it near the wood-fired oven in what seemed like a hopeless attempt to keep him alive. As he would many times in his life, Elmer rallied and surprised everyone by growing into a tall and strong young man. He overcame the challenges of a broken home and abandonment by his mother, spent his entire life in his birth home, and was raised by his grandparents, Phelitus and Lydia Richmond. 

Elmer graduated from Hudson High in 1924 and landed a job as a physical chemist at the now abandoned Lone Star Cement plant in Hudson. The job lasted 44 years, giving him a reliable but modest living and the stability to become a Civic Man. 

Elmer waded into Hudson politics shortly after becoming eligible to vote at age 21. He registered as a Republican to be a contrarian in a Democratic family. He became an alderman and ran unsuccessfully for mayor in 1951. He stuck with politics and in 1965, mayoral candidate Sam Wheeler asked Elmer to be on his "ticket" and run for president of the common council. They won that year and again in 1967.

Elmer's high school graduation photo.

Elmer's high school graduation photo.

Two years later, it was Elmer's turn. Because he was retired he ran under the slogan, "Hudson's First Full-Time Mayor," to demonstrate his commitment to Hudson, a down-on-its-luck city of 15,000. He won a two-year term and was re-elected in 1971. 

He was a natural politician -- smart, gregarious, a great negotiator and counselor. Someone once joked at a dinner I attended that Mayor Sheffer could speak at the drop of a spoon. Elmer proved him right. Patrons at the Elks Lodge bar would yell "Mayor!" when he walked in, a toothpick or cigar in his mouth. He responded with a tip of the cap or an exaggerated politician's wave of the hand.

He loved the job and I loved being the grandson of the mayor. Because I was, my friends thought my family was rich (we weren't) and that we got special privileges (we didn't). Thanks to Looney Tunes cartoons on TV, they also liked to make fun of his name. Come to think of it, he probably was the last person named "Elmer" elected to public office in the U.S. (his political opponents once ran an ad criticizing his policies as "Elmer's Goo.").

In 1973, the local political winds shifted and his party abandoned him. Elmer was disappointed but it did not stop Civic Man.

He threw himself into other community passions. Elmer was a firefighter with the J.W. Edmonds Hose Co. No. 1 and served as its treasurer for more than 40 years. When he could no longer fight fires, he was active in the fire police, directing traffic and people at fire and emergency scenes. He helped form the Hudson Elks Little League and spent many hours grooming the field, managing teams and umpiring. A few years ago, just before his son and my father, Red Sheffer, passed away, the Hudson Elks posthumously named the Little League field after Elmer. Sadly, the sign bearing his name has been removed and field renamed. Apparently, gratitude for the work of Civic Men and Women doesn't last forever. 

In his twilight, he would sit outside his home, smoke a cigar, pet his dog Ringo and talk to everyone who walked by. His daughter, Elizabeth "Bitsy" Sheffer-Winig, remembers that he never turned away any of the aspiring young politicians who came to his house for advice. He loved his children and grandchildren fervently.

By the time I got to know him better as a teenager, he had a jowly face but retained the lanky frame of the gifted athlete who played softball for the Elks into his 50s. Diagnosed with liver cancer in 1981, he didn't give up. An experimental treatment sent the cancer into remission and gave him a few extra years. The tumor regrew but this time Elmer could not rally. The Hudson Fire Department and the Hudson Police escorted his casket to the cemetery.

Holding Court: Grandpa and Ringo

Holding Court: Grandpa and Ringo

I was thinking about my grandfather recently and it struck me that it is harder today to be a Civic Man or Woman. Reliable jobs, which give people the ability to volunteer and serve others,  are scarce in small towns and rural areas. Plus, the dysfunction of Washington, D.C., has created a falsely dark view of our country. Our problems seem so daunting that there is little Civic Man can do. Perhaps this causes us to look to the powerful for answers rather than creating them ourselves. 

I tell you the story of my grandfather not to lionize him but as a reminder that great acts are possible close to home (my grandfather spent 99% of his life on one square mile of earth). Serving on a school board or running a youth baseball league is as powerful collectively as any presidential order. Former President Obama said in his farewell speech that change only happens when "ordinary people get involved, get engaged and come together to demand it." Grandpa Sheffer was that ordinary citizen -- a Civic Man. We need more of them.


A War You Will Not Win

A few years ago I called a senior staff executive to talk with him about a story a journalist was working on. The reporter planned to write a story about news we had yet to announce and was calling for our reaction.

"Tell him it's not news because it hasn't been done yet," the executive said. I explained that the reporter had anonymous sources confirming the news and would publish the article whether we commented or not.

"He can't write the story without us," the executive insisted. I responded that he can and will and that our only decision was whether we wanted to comment.

President Trump at CIA headquarters on Jan. 21 where he complained about media reports on the size of the crowd for his inauguration. 

President Trump at CIA headquarters on Jan. 21 where he complained about media reports on the size of the crowd for his inauguration. 

Exasperated, the executive ended the conversation with: "Gary, it's not news, just tell him to (bleep) off." 

The reporter wrote the story with a "we don't comment on rumors and speculation," quote from me. 

I think back on that exchange as a failure on my part. I had failed to help this executive understand how the media works. He did not understand that we aren't reporters' only source of information about our organization, or that they dig and discover news on their own. He considered the media the enemy.

This last point is very important as we watch a new presidential administration continue its self-declared "running war with the media," as President Trump said this weekend. Clearly, the new White House team wants Americans to trust only the words that come out of Trump's mouth. Plus, their polls likely show it is good politics for the president to denigrate the media as "among the most dishonest human beings on Earth."

It might be good politics with those who already support him but it does not help the president win the trust of more Americans. It is also not good for the country, which needs a strong and trusted press to act as a check on those in power by helping citizens understand and act on important issues and challenges.  

I thought of this yesterday watching a ridiculous "press conference" at the White House. On the president's first full day in office, the new press secretary called the media to the briefing room to insult and berate them and to make assertions that are demonstrably untrue. Today, another presidential spokesperson said Press Secretary Sean Spicer was simply using "alternative facts," whatever that means. What prompted this harangue from the podium? Ego-driven and petty anger about how many people attended the president's inaugural speech.

Spicer said the media's reporting on the crowd size was "deliberately false," an astonishing claim when visual and factual evidence supports the media's reporting. It was the second time in two weeks that Spicer harshly lectured the media. I can tell you from experience it feels good when it comes out of your mouth, but these rants only undercut your credibility. 

This blog is not intended to be partisan or anti-Trump. Nor do I intend to be an apologist for the media; fake and biased news exists and is increasing in volume. 

I do, however, have some perspective on how disdain for and ignorance of the media can be a cancer that invades and impairs an organization. After 35 years of working in and with the media, I know that the vast majority of journalists are dedicated to getting it right. 

It falls to the communicator or public relations leader to convince his colleagues of this point and to create a healthy and informed relationship with journalists. Don't get me wrong -- there are times when someone is determined to do harm to your organization regardless of the facts. In those cases communicators must be tough-nosed and aggressive, and prepared to tell their story through their own platforms. And there may be rare instances when it is justified to tell these people to "(bleep) off."

Do not let the idea that the media is the enemy pervade your organization’s culture. This attitude lets executives off the hook on understanding and interacting with the media.

Communicators must educate their colleagues that, in some cases, these are not real journalists -- a Sean Hannity or a Mother Jones whose political ideology overwhelms any journalistic ethics. These people are activists with Twitter accounts, printing presses, web sites, or cable news and talk radio programs. Monitor and manage the perceptions these activists create but do not treat them the same as journalists who adhere to high ethical standards.

Fighting anti-media negatively in an organization is not easy and may may occasionally result in a "whose side are you on" stare from a colleague. Here are a few quick ideas on how to win this fight: 

  • Educate them on how the media has changed over the past two decades with the emergence of social media and, help them understand who is influential and who is not. A business leader once said to me in a meeting that I was overreacting to a reporters' inquiry. "It's just some guy with a blog," she said. The blog was the Huffington Post and the reporter was a Pulitzer Prize winner. This leader had little understanding of the new media environment and therefore could not make an informed decision on how best to we proceed.
  • Give them metrics on social media "shares" and retweets to back up your recommendations so they react logically and not emotionally to news. 
  • Communicate with them about new and emerging media thought leaders and platforms. Get them together with journalists for coffee or lunch to establish or reinforce a relationship. The more journalists know about your enterprise and its leadership, the more likely they are to produce fact-based journalism.
  • Train them to understand and deal with pseudo-reporters vs. the real thing.

Do not let the idea that the media is the enemy pervade your organization's culture. This attitude lets executives off the hook on understanding and interacting with the media. It creates a "why bother?" or "shut down their access" mentality that, in the long run, hurts you more than it hurts the journalist.

News is not going to stop because you want it to. Journalists and others are going to write, tweet, speak and editorialize about your organization with or without your participation. It is far better to be in the game, calling your plays than brooding on the sidelines. 

Ice Bowl Fires My Fanaticism

Your father takes you to the Hudson Elks Club, sits you at the bar, gives you all the soda and snacks you want, and tells you to watch the football game on TV. You are seven years old. 

Packer fans at the December 1967 "Ice Bowl."

Packer fans at the December 1967 "Ice Bowl."

Dad sits near you with his friends and checks in on you frequently to make sure you have eaten some real food and that you understand what is going on in the game. "Who do you want to win?" he asks. Your Dad's friends ask the same question. You are baffled by the spectacle on the television hanging over the bar. Your feet don't reach the brass foot rail on the mahogany bar so you spend more time spinning on your bar stool than watching the television. You don't even know who is playing or what the rules are but you really like the gold helmets of the team in green jerseys. Plus, there is a big "G" on the helmets like the first letter of your name, so you respond, "I guess the guys in green."

The game comes down to the final seconds and everyone tells you to watch. Number 15 from the green team does something that is hard to see but most everyone in the bar cheers. Your Dad and his friends are smiling and tell you that your team scored and has won the NFL championship.

I brought it to school. It was confiscated by the teacher.

I brought it to school. It was confiscated by the teacher.

It is Dec. 31, 1967, and the guys in green are the Green Bay Packers and they are playing the Dallas Cowboys for the NFL championship. The game is being played at the Packers' Lambeau Field in Wisconsin. It is the coldest NFL game ever -- temperatures drop to minus 15 degrees Fahrenheit with a wind chill of nearly 40 below zero.

It is a seminal moment in your life, setting you on the path of rooting for the Packers, reading books about them, putting up posters of them in your room, cutting out photos of them in newspapers and magazines. Your Dad's friend gives you a book by a Packer lineman, Jerry Kramer, Instant Replay, and you are so absorbed in it that you sneak it into school so you can read it under your desk during class.

What Super Bowl entertainment looked like in 1968.

What Super Bowl entertainment looked like in 1968.

A few weeks after the "Ice Bowl," the Packers play in something called the Super Bowl. They win easily and you are happy but you mostly you remember the gigantic Packer and Raider papier mache statues that come on the field before the game.

Then the Packers go from best to worst. They stink for many years, through your teens and twenties. You root for them anyway and take solace in the fact that they occasionally have a good player, like John Brockington, or when they have decent seasons in 1972 and 1982. You have to explain to your friends why you root for such a bad team from so far away. "You see, my Dad took me to the Elks Club when I was seven..."

Then you have your own kids and you brainwash them to love the Packers. You buy them Packer gear before they can walk. They love the Packers but as they grow older, they are more indifferent to the game and wait for the playoffs to sit with you to watch a Packers game on TV. 

The Packers get better in the 1990s, led by a dashing MVP quarterback, Brett Farve. They win a Super Bowl and in the years they don't, they are still among the best. You take your boys to Lambeau Field in Farve's last year as a player so they can see him in person. The Packers win big and you gleefully shout with the entire stadium "Go Pack Go" dozens of times when prompted by the scoreboard.

Christmas at the Sheffer house was often green, here for Peter.

Christmas at the Sheffer house was often green, here for Peter.

Then Farve "unretires" -- a couple times -- and ultimately plays for the rival Minnesota Vikings. Now you hate him for besmirching his Packer legacy. But your team gets an even better quarterback, Aaron Rodgers, and you go to Dallas to watch him play in a Super Bowl. You put white tape over the "Farve" name on the back of your Packer jersey and with a black sharpie write "Rodgers" on the tape. On the front and back of the jersey, next to Farve's number 4 you write with white tape "x 3 = 12" -- Rodgers' number. Your jury-rigged jersey is a big hit among Packer fans sitting near you and they ask you to pose for photos after the game, which the Packers win.

The Packers continue to make the playoffs year after year but often lose in heartbreaking fashion -- the last two years in overtime. You become so nervous watching games you can't even look at the TV at crucial moments. Your son, Peter, lives in Hong Kong but gets up in the middle of the night to watch games but has the same anxiety about the outcome, walking out of the room when things begin to go bad for the Pack.

You know the Packers have a playoff game tomorrow against the hated Giants but you might not watch because it is too excruciating. You might jinx them. You are a grown man, for goodness sake. You wonder why you invest so much emotion in a game. Then you remember those helmets with the big "G" and the joy you felt as a boy when your Dad and his buddies slapped you on the back and told you "your Packers" won.






We Will Need Words When It Matters

I recently read Jean Edward Smith's devastating biography of President George W. Bush. It is a reminder of how important it is for leaders to be able to connect with people on things that matter, and by this I don't mean calling those who disagree with you clowns and losers on Twitter. 

Bush's inability to connect was painfully visible on March 21, 2006, when his long-time nemesis Helen Thomas of Hearst asked him during a press conference why he had invaded Iraq. Bush was unable to answer the one question central to his presidency. Smith writes:

President Bush at a March 21, 2006 press conference.

President Bush at a March 21, 2006 press conference.

"Bush was caught flatfooted. Living in the president's White House cocoon and surrounded by a largely unquestioning staff, Bush was flummoxed by Thomas's directness. He rambled a lengthy nonresponsive reply, citing the events of 9/11 as his motivation."

Bush's goal for the press conference and a series of speeches was to rebuild faltering support among Americans for the war and to improve his historically low approval rating. The opposite happened. Anthony Cordesman, a military specialist at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, called the speeches "exercises in spin." He added, "They don't outline the risks. They don't create a climate where people trust what's being said."

Donald Trump will face similar challenges during his presidency. There will be a day when he must stand before the public and ask for its support for new economic or social policies, a plan to respond to a significant crisis or, as commander in chief, the use of American military power.  

Many presidents have failed these leadership and communications tests. In my lifetime, I recall Jimmy Carter's feeble words on the Iranian hostage situation or the nation's energy crisis. Others have succeeded, in large part, because they connected powerfully with people in a human, compelling and persuasive way. They used simple but evocative words to explain, inspire and unite. Lincoln sought to heal the nation in his second inaugural, FDR prepared Americans for war after Pearl Harbor, Reagan emotionally memorialized the lost crew of the space shuttle Challenger, and Obama deepened the nation's understanding of racism and the continuing damage it does to our country.

During the 2016 presidential campaign, Trump largely communicated through tweets and campaign rallies filled with rambling generalities. During the transition, his Tweets have continued but there haven't been speeches, opinion columns or press conferences to fill out the public's understanding of how he will govern.

Incoming White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer is heralding a presidential communications revolution in which Trump will use social media to "talk back and forth" with the American people in a way "that's never been seen before." Perhaps. Certainly Trump and staff can respond to a handful of Twitter or Facebook comments from Americans -- as many politicians and businesses already do.

This is simply contemporary communications and in most cases, not real "back and forth" conversations but rather more stylized versions of words used in "old school" platforms such as press releases or annual reports. (By the way, for an example of effective communications with Americans by a president, read Reagan's book of letters.) 

The new White House team is mistaking medium for message. After all, media platforms have and will change: Lincoln's speeches were in person and on paper; FDR's on radio; Reagan's on television; and Obama's on all of these platforms plus social media. The message matters more than the medium. 

So when Trump becomes president and Tweets that he will not allow North Korea to obtain a nuclear missile -- ''It Won't Happen!" -- as he did last week, he will have to back it up with a specific plan of action, possibly in a nationally televised/webcast address. The Tweet is just the movie trailer; the full film still needs to be delivered directly and personally to Americans. Certainly Trump's team knows this; his first chance will be his inaugural address when he must pivot from campaigning to leading. 

A bucket list goal of mine is to read a biography of every U.S. president. I am up to 18 and have read multiple volumes on my favorites -- Lincoln, Teddy Roosevelt, FDR, Truman, Eisenhower and Reagan. In every case, historians have judged these men, in part, by their ability to define their character, to communicate a vision and to rally Americans around a plan to achieve that vision.

Harry Truman announces the bombing of Hiroshima.

Harry Truman announces the bombing of Hiroshima.

On the campaign trail Harry Truman, like Trump, played offense, speaking off the cuff and focusing on a villain (the "do-nothing Eightieth Congress"). But Truman's communications style changed after he won the election. His White House addresses on momentous events and policies such as the destruction of Hiroshima by an atomic bomb, the Korean war and the Truman Doctrine were carefully crafted, "solid and workmanlike speeches, fact-filled and frank...," wrote political columnist William Safire in his collection of great speeches, Lend Me Your Ears. 

When Truman died, veteran journalist Eric Sevareid said of him: "I am not sure he was right about the atomic bomb, or even Korea. But remembering him reminds people what a man in that office ought to be. It's character, just character. He stands like a rock in memory now."

Trump's character test will come. Here's hoping his answer has more than 140.






The Untold Tale of a Great Arctic Adventure

Fifty years ago today, one of the greatest Arctic adventures in history occurred. On Dec. 28, 1966, the six-strong Sheffer party departed our small two-family Union Street home in Hudson, N.Y., and headed north to the tundra of, well, Hudson, N.Y.

20 Joslen Place in its early days. 

20 Joslen Place in its early days. 

We were moving to a new two-story home and we were very proud to be "movin' on up" to the suburbs, as my brother Ken says, recalling "the pure excitement I felt going to sleep in that new mansion." 

In reality it was a modest home but it felt like a mansion to my brother, sisters and me. I was six; Valerie, was nine; Ken had just turned eight (he is a Christmas baby); and Paula was one. Imagine being a young couple with four kids -- as my parents were -- moving into a new home between Christmas and New Year's Day during a brutal cold snap. 

Our parents had spent their whole lives in downtown Hudson and even though we were moving just a mile northeast to a former apple orchard just inside the city line, they were "leaving their parents behind" -- a big deal back then.

Few things went right as the move approached. Mostly, it got really cold and my parents debated whether to do the move as planned on Dec. 28. My mother was determined to make it happen and so we celebrated Christmas and Ken's birthday in our old home and packed at the same time. Mom had the movers load the Christmas tree -- decorations and all -- onto the moving truck and place it in our new home. We were more worried about whether our gifts were being moved too, and were relieved when they showed up at 20 Joslen Place. 

Me and my brother Ken on the front porch of 428 Union St.

Me and my brother Ken on the front porch of 428 Union St.

My siblings and I were excited by the move but we also loved our Union Street home. We would walk to the Post Office on the corner and run through it like it was a playground. Across the street is the Columbia County Courthouse and its park, which also provided innumerable opportunities for fun and trouble.

My friend, Betsy, lived across the street from the Post Office in a giant three-story home that had a really cool attic where we played. I loved going there until Betsy's hamster bit me on my thumb, drawing blood. I showed Betsy how tough I was by sobbing so hard I couldn't breathe. 

My courage also failed me when the city's giant snowblower came down Union Street to consume the snow piled high in front of our house by plows. That's because I was told that a boy had gotten stuck once in snowbanks and was eaten alive by the snowblower's spinning blades. 

Behind our house was Cherry Alley, which was our pathway to Warren Street, the city's main street. The alley also was a place to be feared, at least in a child's mind, because that is where "Hambone" roamed. He was a "hobo" in 1960s terms, but I remember thinking he couldn't be that bad because my father would leave his used clothes in the alley for Hambone and we would later see Hambone in Dad's clothes. 

Our newly constructed home was on a quarter-acre on a dead-end street, Joslen Place. By "constructed" I mean half-finished when we moved in. Weather records say the low that day was nine degrees but I remember it feeling like absolute zero -- inside the house. 

The "mansion" being built. 

The "mansion" being built. 

When we arrived something clearly was not right with the windows. My mother put plastic over them to block the cold and over the front door she tacked up a wool blanket, which fluttered when the wind came calling. The heating system was petulantly unreliable and banged loudly when air got in the pipes, which was all the time.

Hudson got six inches of snow the day after we moved in. We were told to help shovel the driveway ("won't the city plows do that?") and being inexperienced at snow removal, either my brother or I lost a boot in a snowbank and it was later taken away by the city plow, never to be seen again.

When the thaw came and people emerged from their homes, we learned that Joslen Place was as much a kids' paradise as Union Street. Across the street were two houses with five kids each, the Neros and Wursters. In fact, there must have been 25 kids on the street and the older ones called themselves the "Joslen Mafia." Hudson High School (later the Hudson Middle School) was a quarter mile from our house, with football and baseball fields, a running track and tennis courts. The school's buildings and grounds were ten times better than the Post Office for exploring and trouble. 

Our parents passed away in 2007 and we sold "20 J," as we called our home. Every time I ride past it at this time of year, I remember the arctic expedition led 50 years ago by Red and Rachel Sheffer that was just as daring as anything taken on by Shackleton or Byrd. 



'All of You on The Good Earth'

My son, Mark, suggested recently that I write about my favorite Christmas memory or my favorite Christmas gift. I couldn't really think of a favorite thing that someone gave me but I do remember a "gift" I received from 239,000 miles away on Christmas Eve 48 years ago.

Apollo 8 Astronaut William Anders snapped this photo, "Earthrise" while orbiting the moon on Christmas Eve 1968.

Apollo 8 Astronaut William Anders snapped this photo, "Earthrise" while orbiting the moon on Christmas Eve 1968.

1968 was a tough year for America. I was eight and I was scared. I remember being in a doctor's waiting room and seeing a magazine cover about the epidemic of drugs such as LSD on college campuses. I told my mom I didn't want to go to college but I refused to tell her why. Although I didn't know it at the time, it was the year of the Tet offensive in Vietnam and I saw reports on the nightly news of the rising numbers of dead and wounded American soldiers. I figured some day I would have to fight in that war.

In April, we were watching TV in our family room when a news bulletin came on that Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., had been assassinated in Memphis. The report was too painful for me to watch so I got up and voluntarily took the garbage out, surprising my parents, I'm sure.

In June, I got up one morning before school and turned on the TV to watch Popeye and other cartoons as I ate my cereal. Instead, I saw video and photos of Robert F. Kennedy laying on the floor of the kitchen of a Los Angeles hotel, mortally wounded by an assassin. I remember when they  said the outlook for Kennedy was grave, my frustrated response was "come on, they must be able to fix him."

In August, street protests against the war and the resulting police riot at the Democratic National Convention in Chicago showed America at its worst, and that not everyone with power can be trusted to use it wisely. I wondered if we were going to have battles like that in my town.

I was an Olympic fanatic and in October I watched nearly every minute of the ABC broadcasts from the summer games in Mexico City. Our country's African-American athletes dominated and some courageously asserted their human rights on the victory stand and elsewhere. The American performances where thrilling but the athlete protests and the vitriolic reactions to them unsettled me because now anger and division had invaded even my beloved world of sports. 

By the time we got to December, most Americans needed good news, including me.

It came from the American space program, which was a childhood fascination.  I rooted for the U.S. to beat the Soviets to the moon and I read everything I could about the spacecraft and the men who flew them. My brother Ken had a model of the Gemini 4 capsule with astronaut Ed White doing a space walk. I admired it on his shelf in the bedroom we shared every morning when I woke up.

So when Christmas Eve came, I was glued to the TV as Apollo 8 reached the moon. As it circled the moon and the sun rose on the lunar landscape, the three astronauts -- Frank Borman, William Anders and James Lovell -- took turns reading from the Book of Genesis about the creation of heaven and earth, light and darkness, night and day.

Frank Borman, William Anders and James Lovell, the crew of Apollo 8.

Frank Borman, William Anders and James Lovell, the crew of Apollo 8.

The astronauts had been told before they left on their mission that they would be speaking to the largest audience ever to listen to a human voice. Lovell said they selected the first ten verses of Genesis because it is the foundation of many of the world's religions, not just Christianity. 

Apollo 8's live Christmas Eve broadcast made me feel safe for some reason. Maybe it was the sheer audacity of what our nation was trying to do -- explore the heavens and advance the cause of humanity. Maybe it was that we seemed to be doing it together, as Americans, with a single and noble purpose. Maybe it was the courage of those three men in that tiny capsule far from their homes. Maybe it was their faith in something more important than themselves despite their own miraculous accomplishments. 

Maybe it was the warmth and love I felt from being with my brother and sisters and our Mom and Dad, on the most exciting night of the year for a little kid. Even today when I watch the Apollo 8 video, I get emotional and wonder why it touches me so. I don't have an answer.

Mark, I don't recall a single thing I got from Santa that year, but I do remember Apollo 8 Mission Commander Frank Borman's sign off from that broadcast. He bound us together as people -- good people -- regardless of faith, ideology or political perspective. Thanks for reminding me of his words, which are an appropriate way to cap the difficult year of 2016:

"And from the crew of Apollo 8, we close with good night, good luck, a Merry Christmas, and God Bless all of you -- all of you on the good Earth."


Fresh eyes

Those raised on television during the 1970s might remember a sappy episode of the Korean War comedy M*A*S*H in which Alan Alda's Hawkeye character is temporarily blinded by a gas explosion while trying to light a stove in a nurse's tent (nudge, nudge, wink, wink).

The wisecracking surgeon spends the next week adjusting to the idea that he may never regain his vision but begins to experience life through his other senses in ways he hadn't previously -- he is even able to dictate instructions in the operating room based on his sense of smell and hearing. As the bandages are about to come off his eyes, he tells fellow surgeon BJ:

Hawkeye thinks a rainstorm sounds like steak being barbecued. I disagree -- it's more like steam escaping a vent.

Hawkeye thinks a rainstorm sounds like steak being barbecued. I disagree -- it's more like steam escaping a vent.

"One part of the world has closed down for me, but another part has opened up.  Sure, I keep picturing myself on a corner with a tin cup selling thermometers, but I'm going through something here I didn't expect. This morning I spent two incredible hours listening to that rainstorm. And I didn't just hear it. I was part of it. I'll bet you have no idea that rain hitting the ground makes the same sound as steaks when they're barbecuing."

I have seen or read other accounts of this hyper-sensitivity that comes with blindness but, for some reason, I have always remembered this fictitious one. Maybe because I don't think a rainstorm sounds like steaks on the grill (for a moving and realistic description of what blindness is like, read Edward Hoagland). I do remember this scene made me think -- at the time I saw it -- how important it is to experience and understand life from many perspectives. I thought about it, and then forgot it.

I forgot it over 35 years working in journalism and communications where nearly everything I did was focused on making me successful in those professions. I said to myself that I didn't have time to try new things in literature, music, and art. I mostly shunned fiction even though I was an English Literature major in college. I read only non-fiction books by or about journalists, biographies of leader and other business books, and the news and business sections of newspapers and magazines. 

My music never matured beyond what I listened to when I was my teens and 20s. The Beatles, Motown, Springsteen, some country, southern rock, Seger, Clapton -- your basic college dorm playlist.

I can see now that this selective engagement with the world actually made me worse at my work, not better.

My eyes began to open when I retired a year ago and had time for new discoveries. However, the real catalyst was that I had the chance to spend more time with our four children, who are voracious consumers of culture and whose diverse interests provoked mine.

Mark, 17, and his friends needed a ride to a concert featuring the Black Keys, so Barb and I took them and there I discovered Gov't Mule, a great rock/blues jam band. Gov't Mule led me to Tedeschi Trucks Band which led me to Gary Clark Jr., which led me to The Allman Brothers Band for the first time and back around for a second consideration of Neil Young. Driving Mark to and from school introduced me to the works of David Byrne and Brian Eno, MatisyahuTV On the Radio, and to the new Red Hot Chili Peppers.

Coming back from a dinner one night with Barb and the kids, we were cranking Froggy Fresh and his song "Dunked On," which led to a family catch phrase and a figurative answer to why you might be feeling down -- "'cause I just got dunked on."

Sarah, 27, and Emily, 23, advocated broader reading beyond my military history and political non-fiction. Soon, I had committed myself to reading the most recent Pulitzer Prize winners in fiction -- from The Sympathizer back, so far, to Empire Falls. I jokingly declared the day after Christmas "National Reading Day for our family and we spent 10 hours together just with our books. 

Peter, 25, is a brilliant historian with an iconoclastic view of the world. He had often encouraged me to open my mind to new perspectives on public policy, politics and how they are reported. When I made arguments about these topics using my talking points training, he cut me to shreds with his deep knowledge and skepticism of those with power.

So I stopped relying solely on ideologically predictable media like The Wall Street Journal editorial page and The New Yorker (although both are must reads). I added to my regular reading and viewing Vox, The Nation, and the great Nicholas Kristof and tried to learn more about emerging news leaders like Pro PublicaBuzzFeed and many others -- even when I disagreed with the ideological underpinning that informed their reporting.

These changes made 2016 a great and expansive year for me. I tried new things and looked at life differently and am better for it. Many are glad to see this year end. I am not. I feel more informed and curious than ever and I am anxious to make up for lost time.

I also sense growing interest among Americans in ending the selfishness, division and personal rancor that arises from living a narrow life of cultural isolation.

We can't keep reading the same things and listening to the same people over and over, thereby shunning discovery, understanding, and empathy. I'm not so much worried about fake news but about homogenous "news," in which we select information sources solely to reinforce our worldview.

Washington Post columnist Margaret Sullivan said it well recently, encouraging the news media to adopt fresh eyes:

"If news organizations learned anything after the campaign, they should have learned that groupthink has a tendency to miss the point and journalistic myopia requires some extra-strength corrective lenses.

"Do something different. Represent the interests of a broader, more ideologically diverse population. Figure out what they're thinking and feeling -- and why."

I once heard a senior executive tell a younger colleague he did not read anything that was not related to his job. Recreational reading for him, would wait until retirement. If anyone gives you this unwise advice, maybe you should ask them to fix your faulty stove.



The bad idea phone call

I don't know who Donald Trump has in mind to be his White House communications director. I do know, however, that there will come a time when the new president calls his communications leader to propose a really bad idea, such as deporting the White House turkey instead of pardoning it.

Okay, sorry to make a cheap political joke. I am not saying there is a high probability that Donald Trump will have bad ideas, such as Tweeting angrily about Broadway actors and television shows like a thin-skinned teenager. Actually, I am going to need to take a break here and do a calming chant to convince myself that we're all going to be okay: "Pins and needles, needles and pins, it's a happy man that grins."

Better now. What I am saying is that all presidents have bad ideas from time to time. So do CEOs, communicators, journalists, auto mechanics, priests, me, even my dog Charlie ("sniff, sniff, hey, maybe I should eat that piece of chewing gum stuck to the sidewalk...").

In business and government it is often the communicator who gets the first call to discuss an idea in all its badness. That's because these misguided brainstorms can arise from frustration with an article in the media, a half-baked idea served up in the executive lunch room, or when an executive's family has spent too much time on social media and thinks it's time to "set the record straight" with LaserBoy217. 

I worked as a communications counsel with two CEOs -- Jack Welch and Jeff Immelt -- who rarely let bad ideas reach their lips. Both have great instincts and judgment about reputation management so they usually knew the right answer before I said anything. They also have good senses of humor and easily laugh at themselves, which is very important to these discussions.

I was prompted to write about this somewhat narrow topic after watching the fascinating documentary, Our Nixon, which included one of the best bad idea phone calls in political history. On April 30, 1973, President Richard Nixon, gave a nationally televised speech to announce he had accepted the resignations of his top aides over the Watergate coverup. After the speech, Nixon, deep in a paranoid funk, telephoned Chief of Staff H.R. "Bob" Haldeman -- one of the aides who had resigned -- to ask him to call a few allies to see how the speech was being received:

Nixon: I don't know whether you can call and get me any reactions and call me back. Like the old style. Would you mind?

Haldeman: I don't think I can. I don't...

Nixon: No, I agree.

Haldeman: I'm in kind of an odd spot to do that...

Nixon: No, don't call a goddamned soul. The hell with it.

Listening to this call made me cringe for both men and reminded me of similar calls I have been on:

Well, you could do that Gary if you want to ruin your reputation.
  • A government official asked his staff (including me) to offer waste tires piled up in dozens of dumps to professional rodeos for their use (Me: "I don't know how many rodeos there are but we're talking about millions of tires").
  • Many communicators have gotten this request: To find out who is leaking information to the news media, let's plant fake news with a member of the team and see if he/she will leak it to a reporter (Me: "What happens when the fake news ends up in the media?").
  • I once asked a communicator friend if I should issue a whiny statement in my name about a reporter who won a journalism prize for a misleading article about my company. (Friend: "Well you could do that Gary if you want to ruin your reputation."). 

These are difficult calls to handle, particularly for someone who is new in a job or who has a new boss. So here is my advice for communicators when you get this call:

  • Understand the relationship. Why did the executive call you? What does he/she expect from you -- just a shoulder to cry on or the truth? It is important to know which leaders do not want pushback because a "you're wrong" approach won't work. 
  • In all cases, listen carefully at first. Let the executive walk through the idea completely. Don't try to fill the silence. Ask for details on how the idea will work. "Walk me through that," is a good response.
  • Ask basic questions: "What is our goal in doing this?" "What will success look like?" "Who will be involved?"
  • Then go deeper: "Aren't you concerned about how our employees will react?" "Is this what we want to spend our reputational capital on?" "Have you talked to [insert trusted advisor or board member here]?" "How would we explain this to investors?"
  • Express your opinion, don't wait. Bad ideas can gain momentum quickly, particularly on communications issues. To back up your opinion, Provide data ("this issue really is going nowhere on social media") or illustrative examples of how others have faced into a similar situation ("XYZ Company tried this and it didn't work"). If you don't have them off the top of your head, get them ASAP. 
  • Call on an outside counselor. Ask an outside counselor to provide an opinion through you or directly to the executive. Sometimes an outside voice can made a difference. 

This may seem straightforward because it usually is. It takes courage and expertise, however, to have an opinion, voice it and then be prepared to deal with the fallout should an executive move ahead with a bad idea. And oh, remember to take a deep breath and say, "Pins and needles, needles and pins..."


The Meek prevails

There is a movie coming out about Chilean poet Pablo Neruda, which reminded me of two humiliations I suffered at the hands of a guy named "Meek." I promise this will make sense in a few paragraphs. 

My hometown, Hudson, NY, celebrated its bicentennial in 1986. There were parades, special issues of the local paper, The Register-Star, and a five-mile run to celebrate the city's birthday. I worked at the newspaper and my terrific editor, Jim Calvin, proposed that I challenge one of our colleagues, Mike Meek, to run in the race. "C'mon, help promote the race," he said, knowing full well that I was as physically fit as a corpse. When Jim was not encouraging you to spell words correctly by throwing a dictionary at you, he was very charming and persuasive. I said, "I'm in."

Mike was the paper's city of Hudson and politics reporter and a good one. He became like a brother to me and often I would find him at my parents' house helping himself to a serving of my mother's spaghetti and meatballs. Or he'd be in the family room having a beer and watching the New York Giants with my father. My parents' couch cushions had a Meek-shaped imprint.

I lost the race but, man, look at my hair.  

I lost the race but, man, look at my hair. 

Mike accepted my race challenge, which we made public by writing about it in the Register-Star. It was billed as the hometown boy -- me -- versus the carpetbagger from downstate -- Mike. We traded taunts and promises of victory -- sort of like a written version of a boxing weigh-in. Mine were better -- I accused Mike of being the only man I knew who had cellulite. 

I may have won the verbal battle, but Mike won the war. To put it mildly, I undertrained and underestimated Mike. He whipped me -- I never saw him after the first mile. As part of our agreement, I wrote an apology in the newspaper for letting down my hometown. It began:

"Sorry Hudson High, my regrets Coach Leamy, I apologize Charter City.

"It was a semi-glorious weekend for Hudson. On Saturday the winds whipped away the clouds for the Bicentennial parade, on Saturday night fireworks blasted across the city's skies, and on Sunday Mike Meek blew me away in the Bicentennial Run."

But I didn't hold it against Mike. He was in my wedding and I was his best man. He married a beautiful professional dancer from Argentina, Valeria Solomonoff. I did my best man's toast in Spanish quoting Neruda's poetry. Here's what I chose from Neruda's 100 Love Sonnets:

"I love you without knowing how, or when, or from where. I love you simply, without problems or pride: I love you in this way because I do not know any other way of loving but this, in which there is no I or you, so intimate that your hand upon my chest is my hand, so intimate that when I fall asleep your eyes close

You need a tissue, right? I thought this would bring down the house with "awwwws." Unfortunately, my delivery was in mumbling, halting Spanish and the whole thing, to me, was more awful than awwww. 

That's my future wife, Barbara, and I misconnecting at a water stop. 

That's my future wife, Barbara, and I misconnecting at a water stop. 

Next up was a bridesmaid, Mariucchi, a professional singer. As I sat down, the room went dark and then a single spotlight dramatically illuminated her, microphone in hand. She performed a beautiful ballad for the wedding couple. It brought down the house. I was so glad I went before her.

Valeria and Mike then read a Neruda poem to one another (thankfully not the one I had read!), and did a traditional tango, which Mike pulled off magnificently after weeks of practice. Then Mike and Valeria's friends, many of whom were professional dancers, joined them on the dance floor. The room was filled with stylish, talented young people who obviously loved Valeria and Mike.   

This was totally selfish on my part but, at the time, I felt like I -- meaning my toast -- had finished second again. I was grateful that Mike didn't warn me about the "floor show" that followed my toast because I would have sweated through my tuxedo. Nonetheless, the wedding was a blast and one of the most joyous I can remember attending.

Today, Mike and Valeria have two beautiful children and live in Manhattan. Mike wisely moved from journalism to finance after earning his MBA from New York University. He informs me he retired from competitive road racing after beating me, figuring he had reached the peak of his potential. I have run dozens of races since then, perhaps trying to erase the memory of my loss to Mike. 

Recalling these moments is fun but leaves me a little wistful. Let's see, what can pick up my spirits? How about a little more Neruda?

"So I wait for you like a lonely house

till you see me again and live in me.

Till then, my windows ache."




Extraordinary next door

You don't have to look far to find the extraordinary. Sometimes you just have to stick your head out your front door. My wife and son did and they found the extraordinary Herman Kleine.

Herman Kleine

Herman Kleine

Barb and Mark have come to know Herman over the past few years. His front door is about 50 yards from ours in our condominium complex in Fairfield, CT. The only times I had encountered Herman was watching him drive by our place in the morning on the way to the gym for a workout. Herman is 96.

But that's not even the most extraordinary thing about him. Herman was involved in many of the most important world events of the past century. World War II, the Battle of the Bulge, the dropping of the atomic bombs on Japan, the Marshall Plan, the Cold War, the Peace Corps, the Vietnam conflict, the first American relief effort for a foreign natural disaster, and even the Live Aid Concert to fight hunger in Africa. This is not the full list. 


Not bad for a guy who grew up during the Depression in Brooklyn and later in Hempstead, Long Island, where he was his high school's valedictorian. He went on to earn a doctorate in economics from Clark University after serving in the U.S. Army Air Corps during World War II, rising to the rank of captain. 

Herman was an administrator in the Air Corps but that doesn't mean it was easy duty. His superiors recognized his sharp, analytical mind and gave him the responsibility of selecting which of his Air Corps colleagues -- mechanics and air crew members -- would become infantry reinforcements for the Battle of Bulge, where Americans were taking the brunt of Germany's desperate offensive. Herman recalled the base commander saying, "'Kleine, this is your job to select the men. You make the selections. I'll back you up.'' The men and their families made appeals to Herman on why they shouldn't be sent. Soon after getting this responsibility, Herman began to hear that many of the men he selected were killed or wounded. "It was a horrible experience," he said.

He didn't know it at the time, but Herman played a similar role at the Army's Dalhart, Texas, air base in selecting flight crews for the B-29s that dropped the two atomic bombs on Japan, ending the war in the Pacific. "They just told me to get the best men," he said. "I didn't know what it was for." Herman learned the true nature of the missions when he left the service and read a book about the Enola Gay, the plane that dropped the bomb on Hiroshima. 

Herman, right, and his brother, Harold, in 1944 when Herman was commissioned as an officer in the U.S. Army Air Corps. 

Herman, right, and his brother, Harold, in 1944 when Herman was commissioned as an officer in the U.S. Army Air Corps. 

After the war, Herman took the Foreign Service Exam ("the toughest four days of testing I ever had before or since"), which launched him on a 30-year career in the foreign service and international economic development. After a stint teaching at Worcester Polytechnic Institute, Herman joined the Marshall Plan mission to the Netherlands in 1949 as a finance officer. Its headquarters was in The Hague, where Herman lived for three years. He went on to assignments in Washington, Brazil, Ethiopia, and at the United Nations headquarters in Manhattan, becoming friends and associates with legendary journalists, emperors, and presidents. During the Kennedy Administration in the early 1960s, Herman was involved in the startup of the Peace Corps and toured South Vietnam with then President Ngo Dinh Diem as America's painful involvement in that country was just beginning.

He has earned numerous awards from the U.S. government and his alma maters for service to his country. During his year at the National War College, Herman met his late wife, Paula. His son Michael, also graduated from the War College in 2013 and has followed in Herman's footsteps, recently serving as acting U.S. ambassador to Laos. Herman went on to work at Georgetown University, where he ran a program placing students in service abroad with development and refugee programs. 

Some of the members of the Fairfield Prep Historians Club after placing third in the 2016 Connecticut History Bowl. Third from left is Mark Sheffer. 

Some of the members of the Fairfield Prep Historians Club after placing third in the 2016 Connecticut History Bowl. Third from left is Mark Sheffer. 

A few weeks ago, Herman accepted my son Mark's invitation to tell his story to The Historians Club at Fairfield College Preparatory School. Ten young men and their teacher listened intently for 90 minutes to Herman humbly and softly recount his life. What did these young men want to know?

  • "Did you meet (Ethiopian Emperor) Haile Selassie?" Herman had a number of times when stationed in Ethiopia in the late 1950s. He recalled the time Selassie seated 100 American diplomats at one large table in his palace to serve them a traditional Thanksgiving meal. "The silverware was solid gold," Herman said.
  • "Did you meet President Ford?" Yes, Herman had briefed Ford and Henry Kissinger in the Oval Office on the devastation wreaked by Hurricane Fifi in Latin America. As the meeting began, Kissinger said, "Dr. Kleine, you are a misfit in the foreign service. You write a readable report."
  • "What are you most proud of?" Playing a part in the Marshall Plan, Herman answered, quoting 1997 remarks from then-U.S. Treasury Secretary Robert Rubin: "That plan -- its spirit and vision -- marked one of America's finest moments."
  • "What is the key to success?" Networking for one, Herman said. "In life, I find, there are connections, one thing leads to another -- and you have to be ready when the opportunity comes." He added with a laugh: "A little obsessiveness doesn't hurt."

I drove Herman to and from his meeting with the young men at Prep and sat in on his talk. I came away with something rare -- the feeling that I had just met a man of great wisdom and judgment. It wasn't just his long list of accomplishments. It's that after spending a lifetime dealing with some of the world's most complex issues and influential people, Herman remains humble, gracious and optimistic. 

Barb and Mark gave Herman a small gift to thank him for talking to the Prep students. Herman wrote a prompt thank-you note to Mark -- his "friend and neighbor" -- for inviting him: "I thank you too, for giving me the opportunity to take a walk down memory lane on a beautiful October day."

When people say government is bad or that our problems are intractable, think of Herman. When critics deride America's exceptionalism and doubt its generosity, think of Herman. When you wonder whether you should stop and say "hello" to your neighbors, think about the extraordinary Herman Kleine.








Nervous brake down

When you smell the rubber of your bike's brake pads burning as you descend a twisting ribbon of a mountain road at 40 miles per hour, you think, in order: 1. hey, I am a genuine badass; 2. hmm, there are no guardrails on that hairpin turn ahead; and, 3. I wonder if Barb will remarry.

Ten minutes to start: Should I really do this, or should I just play in the bounce house all day?

Ten minutes to start: Should I really do this, or should I just play in the bounce house all day?

That was me as I bounced, swerved and skidded like a runaway coal car down Skyuka Mountain in the Blue Ridge Mountains this past weekend. I was a "participant" in cycling star George Hincapie's Gran Fondo, an 80-mile race that included 8,000 feet of climbing and several scary descents. I survived the ride but it took several hours to pry my hands from the handlebar so I could write this ode to an exhilarating, exhausting and intriguing event that drew 2,300 cyclists to ironically named Travelers Rest, South Carolina.

I have taken to cycling recently because my body is worn out from years of daily running. Plus, I admit I was intoxicated by Lance Armstrong and his inspiring comeback from cancer. Because of him, the Tour de France has become my favorite sporting event, despite the lingering stink of Armstrong's deceptions.

Road cycling is hard and it hasn't come easily to me. It takes courage, concentration and, as real riders say, "a lot of time in the saddle" (or your butt will bark). Having my feet clipped to the pedals was a difficult change from my childhood bikes. I have scars on my knees and hands from when I forgot to unclip at red lights and fell slowly to the pavement. Enduring the searing pain of climbing a steep hill at 6 miles per hour came naturally to a marathoner like me but descending the other side at 40 mph on two narrow tires horrified me (hence the burning brakes). 

Cyclists are serious about their sport, which has many unwritten rules. They will bellow at you like a drill sergeant, "Hold your line!" if you get a little wobbly near them. They spend thousands on their machines and they know that a mistake by a newbie like me can bend their frames and break their bones. At the same time, they are friendly and generous and will stop on the side of the road to ask if you are okay or to help fix a flat tire.

One of the many switchbacks on Skyuka Mountain.

One of the many switchbacks on Skyuka Mountain.

Cycling was difficult for me even when I was young. I just couldn't graduate from training wheels to the red bike with the banana seat and motorcycle handles my parents bought for me at Barker's department store (my brother Ken got one, too). I remounted repeatedly and tried to ride it but had to keep diving off on to the grass or end up with more dirt and gravel embedded in the palms of my hands after another fall.

As my First Holy Communion approached when I was eight, I was certain that would be the day I would succeed. I guess I just thought God would give me that one little victory. After Mass, I hopped on the bike, wobbled a bit at first, but then cruised down our street without a problem. I victoriously dropped my bike in our driveway (you never used the kickstand - that was uncool) and ran inside to tell my parents about my premonition and the miracle that had just occurred. The house was full of friends and relatives for a post-Communion celebration so all my mother had time to say was, "That's great, now wash your hands for lunch."

Me after a training ride. No one told me to smile or suck in my gut.

Me after a training ride. No one told me to smile or suck in my gut.

Nonetheless, I had my freedom. For the next five or six years, our bikes were our ticket to fun and trouble -- Oakdale playground, Polar Bar, the corner store and the entire city of Hudson, NY (we once rode our bikes through the inside of the volunteer firefighting museum for which we got banned for life). In summer, we'd get on our bikes after breakfast and return only for lunch or dinner.

It is the same today. I have seen amazing things from my bike on the backroads of Columbia County NY -- wildlife, wild flowers, the satisfying symmetry of a recently mowed hay field, the beautiful contrast of a blue summer sky with the rolling green lines of the Berkshire and Catskill mountains. Some of my rides last six hours or more and have introduced me to clerks and customers at nearly every convenience and general store in the county -- Stewart's, XtraMart, Cobble Pond Farms, The Farmer's Wife -- where I stop for food and drinks.

In two trips to the Carolinas, my wife and I have met a neurosurgeon and his wife from Tennessee, a veterinarian and his son from Florida, a real estate lawyer from Philly, professional racers, and others who share a passion for cycling. This past weekend as we waited in the early morning cold for the start of the Gran Fondo, I chatted about the race with a father and son from Barcelona, Spain. They had ridden the race previously and they could sense I was nervous about it.

"It's not too bad," the father said reassuringly. The son smiled, thought a bit, and then warned, "Just watch the descent down Skyuka. It's very steep and technical. Don't be distracted by the beautiful view." 





Y I rite

I didn't have a subscription to Sports Illustrated magazine when I was a kid. Too expensive. Luckily, my parents' friend Eddie (Sully) Sullivan would bring over a dozen or so of his past issues when he stopped by for coffee occasionally on Saturday mornings.

I would disappear for days to pore over every page of the magazines (and not just the swimsuit issue). Despite its "Illustrated" title, I loved the writing by greats like Frank DeFord, Robert Creamer, William Nack, John Underwood, Tex Maule and others. It made me love words as much as sports, and I have tried -- poorly -- over the years to imitate the styles of these superb writers.

They led me to start my career in sports writing at my college and hometown newspapers. To this day, I think much of the best newspaper writing is in the sports section. Read this amazing opening paragraph from George Vescey of the New York Times on the death of Mickey Mantle:

"People will mourn the tortured man with the hollow eyes and prematurely wrinkled face, whose liver went fast, just as his knees had done. But the real reason they are mourning Mickey Mantle today is that first he was a young lion who prowled green urban pastures, sleekly, powerfully, unpredictably." 

SI's cover when Mickey Mantle died in 1995.

SI's cover when Mickey Mantle died in 1995.

I had inspirations beyond sports. My English teacher at Hudson (NY) High School, Frank (never Sully) Sullivan, lit a fire in me for reading. I was an indifferent student in most subjects but not his class. Still, I often got the answer wrong when called upon, to which Mr. Sullivan would respond, "Oh dear boy, it is better to remain quiet and be thought a fool than to open one's mouth and remove all doubt."

He taught me that to be a good writer, you have to read good writing. Although I could have done without the torture of Silas Marner (I constantly fell asleep reading it), he introduced me to great storytelling. I was riveted by Truman Capote's In Cold Blood and Shakespeare's Henry V (the latter of which Mr. Sullivan made us read while standing on a chair, theatrical sword in hand).

Covertly, because it wasn't cool in high school, I drank up everything in his class and supplemented it with my own reading. Roger Angell of the New Yorker and author of numerous baseball books taught me words such as "expunged" (a team wasn't "eliminated" from the playoffs, it was "expunged."). 

I also read Edwin Newman's Strictly Speaking and William Safire's On Language columns in the New York Times. Even though I'd rather read Silas Marner again than diagram a sentence, my interest in words and language continues today with books such as Between You & Me: Confessions of a Comma Queen by Mary Norris, a long-time copy editor at The New Yorker. 

Mr. Sullivan helped me get one of the highest scores in the class on the Regents English exam, much to the surprise of my classmates because I also got some of the lowest scores in other subjects. That test score, and an essay I wrote on journalism, helped me get into Siena College with an otherwise lackluster academic record.

At Siena, an American Literature Between the Wars course introduced me to Hemingway, Fitzgerald and Steinbeck. Reading Hemingway was like a punch in the stomach and made me realize how wordy and pedestrian my writing was. My professors usually agreed. On the cover of a term paper, one wrote, "Gary, I am not sure what point you are trying to make. I guess the only thing I can say is your footnotes are well done. C-"

After college, daily journalism improved the clarity of my writing but then 25 years in politics and business gunked it up with legal grit and corporate residue. An exception was what I learned from GE CEO Jeff Immelt. His writing is authentic, empathetic and energetic. His response to Sen. Bernie Sanders in the Washington Post is the kind of courageous and clear writing that is in short supply in business. Working with him on his annual share owner letter and speeches made me determined to knock the muck off my writing.

So this is why I write. It's fun to think back and recreate things that have happened in my life. Plus, it's a differentiator in the workplace; good writing, after all, is about clear thinking and simplicity, which many big organizations lack. And you need not look past Winston Churchill, Teddy Roosevelt or Ronald Reagan to know that great leaders are often great writers, a combination that is sadly lacking today. In his 1946 essay, Why I Write, George Orwell provided four main motives for authors, and perfectly captured today's politicians:

"Political language is designed to make lies sound truthful and murder respectable, and to give an appearance of solidity to pure wind."

Powerful. But Orwell knew his writing was imperfect, as do I. I also know that the more I write, the better it will get. I hope communications students, particularly, feel that way. 

We need young people to better represent their amazing ideas and deep passions if they are to be fully realized and lived. A PowerPoint slide won't do. 

We need leaders -- CEOs, presidents, mayors, educators -- to compel, persuade and explain. A sanitized "holding statement" won't do. 

We need bold words like Lincoln's second inaugural, FDR's first inaugural and Martin Luther King's civil rights speech at the Lincoln Memorial. A Tweetstorm won't do. 

We need great prose and poetry (go Bob Dylan!) to inspire, entertain and unite us around common values and ideals. Slogans won't do.

Good writing can do these things but most people don't try because it can be risky and is just plain hard. Orwell wrote, "Writing a book is a horrible, exhausting struggle, like a bout with some painful illness."  Maybe so. But, with apologies to Mr. Sullivan, I'd rather give it a try and be thought a fool than to not try at all.